Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A Literary Blind Date

Blind date. The mere words send a chill down my spine. But a literary blind date?  Now that's a concept I can get behind!

While exploring downtown Greenville with Pam, M.Judson Booksellers was a natural stop. I browsed the tables and looked at the staff recommendations before noticing an intriguing display of brown paper-covered books under the heading "Blind Date." What a fun idea!

I spent some time reading the descriptions, seeing if there were books I could identify.

One option: --a tough fourteen year old girl and her survivalist father; --an innocent crush, a beautiful friendship and a way out into the free wide world;   --Quote from Stephen King: "This book is ugly, beautiful, horrifying and uplifting." The book: My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, one of my favorite reads from last year. (Click here to read my review.)

Then there was this one:  --National Book Award Finalist for Fiction; --Family saga spanning four generations in Korea and Japan; --Beautiful story of what immigrants sacrifice and achieve; -- What makes us part of a family? A nation?  The book, of course, is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.

Needless to say, I couldn't resist selecting a mystery date for myself. After perusing all my options, I settled on the one with this description. The concept of a children's author with a secret past piqued my interest. My new companion: A House Among the Trees by Julia Glass.

We arrive in the novel's world almost simultaneously with a young actor. The charming Nick Greene has just won an Academy Award; his next role is that of Mort Lear in a biopic about the author's life.

The studio became interested in Lear's story when he revealed in an interview that he had been abused as a child. The purpose of the visit is for Greene and Lear to continue their surprisingly candid email conversation and for Greene to get a feel for Lear's day-to-day life. But there's one problem -- Lear fell off a ladder and died just days before Greene's arrival. That leaves Lear's longtime live-in assistant Tomasina (Tommy) with responsibility for hosting the actor while grieving and coming to terms with her new role as executor of Lear's estate.

Glass uses this set-up to explore her characters' driving forces. Although Lear is dead, his life is the glue holding the story together. We learn early on about the unusual way Tommy and Mort met and how that chance meeting shaped their lives. Greene's visit provides the perfect opportunity for Tommy to reflect on her time with Lear as an ever-present witness to his personal and professional life. Despite their closeness, she learns he's withheld an important part of his story from her. Can we ever really know another person, or ourselves for that matter? This question is nestled among other themes the book raises, including loyalty, ego and morality. Weighty topics indeed for a blind date. But really, who wants to waste time being superficial?

I enjoyed A House Among the Trees, but it didn't shoot to the top of my list. I'll go on another date with Glass in the future, but, as they say, there are many fish in the sea. Titles in my bookshelf awaiting my attention include Red Notice by Bill Browder, Warlight by Michael Ondaatje and Hotels of North America by Rick Moody. So many books, so little time.

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